The immigration issue has once more bubbled to the surface in America because of the provocative statements and assertions by one of the Republication contenders for their party’s presidential nomination.

Immigrants – especially illegal immigrants – are accused of stealing the jobs of “real” Americans, of mooching off the welfare state at the expense of taxpaying U.S. citizens and legal residents, and threatening the political status quo of the nation, since “we all know” that too many of those immigrants, if given citizenship, will vote for the political plunders who offer them more of other people’s money.

America the Land of Opportunity for the New Comer

It is a cliché, but it is no less true: we are a nation of immigrants. It is estimated that between 1840 and 1914, around 60 million people left Europe to settle somewhere else in the world. About 35 million of them came to the United States. The remainder found new homes in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada or Latin American countries such as Brazil and Argentina.

They came to America usually for one (or more) of three reasons: To escape religious persecution, to get from under political oppression, or to find economic opportunity for the better compared to the government controls, regulations or heavy taxes experienced in the “old country.”

In the 1840s and 1850s, large numbers of Irish came to the United States. They left behind famine and unwanted British rule. In the 1860s and 1870s, a wave of Germans came to America’s shores. They were looking for a better economic life and avoidance of the military draft due to Prussian-led wars that resulted in the unification of the Germanic states into Imperial Germany in 1871 under Kaiser Wilhelm I.

In the 1880s and 1890s, many Italians and Poles came to America looking for better material circumstances for their families. In the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century, there arrived a significant numbers of Russian Jews who were escaping from poverty and religious persecution and violence in Imperial Russia.

In between came Scandinavians, Scots, Hungarians, Lithuanians and Latvians, Romanians and Greeks, and many, many others.

Some Looking for a Second Chance, Others Brought in Chains

All were looking for a “second chance,” a new beginning in a new land that greeted many of them with the Statue of Liberty as they entered New York harbor. Most of them did not know the English language; many were illiterate or had only limited education; they were often “low skilled” with limited experience with working in the emerging modern world of commerce, industry, and trade.

But for many of us, let us not forget, they are our ancestors. They are our grandparents or great-grandparents, or great great-grandparents. We are here, enjoying the lives that we lead with the degrees of prosperity that we each are fortunate to have, because they left the “old country” to try to make a better life for themselves and their children.

Yes, not every American alive today is the descendent of such immigrants. Over 10 million Africans were brought to the Americas between the 1500s and the mid-1800s. It is estimated that upwards of two million more Africans never survived the journey across the Atlantic in the slave ships. About 500,000 of those Africans were brought to the United States during the period of the slave trade.

Yet, their descendants in the U.S., after a long and harsh political and economic battle against segregation, racial prejudices, and educational disadvantages over many decades, live far better and have more economic opportunities, today, in mainstream America than the vast majority of billions of people in other parts of the world.

Myths and Prejudices Against the New Arrivals

How were many of these waves of immigrants frequently viewed by those (or their descendants) who had come to America earlier? With prejudice, dislike, and intolerance.

How can the Irish or the Poles ever be “real Americans”? After all, they worship and obey the Pope in Rome! And, don’t forget, they are all drunks, and therefore are a bad example for our children. Oh, and the Italians, who besides being Pope worshipers, are all lazy and Mafia types.

What about those Germans? They cluster together in small communities clinging to speaking German and eating their German food, while wanting to spend their weekends in the park listening to military oom-pah-pah music with a beer stein in hand.

And those Jews! Well, we all know they killed Jesus. And, besides, it’s rumored that they kidnap and kill Gentile children to make matzo bread out of them. Plus, they are the blood sucking “money-changers.” Clearly their arrival means the end of God’s America!

We look back, today, at such beliefs, attitudes and prejudices with the ridicule and bemusement that they deserve. Over a hundred years later, now, they are our ancestors, and we are their descendants.

The American “Melting Pot”

When I was growing up in the late 1950s and 1960s, it was still common for people sometimes to refer to themselves as Italian-Americans, or Irish-Americans, or Polish-Americans, even if it was their parents or grandparents who had originally come to America.

Today, if I ask the students in my classes what is the national or ethnic origin of their last name, or where they ancestors originally came from, many if not most of them reply that they have no idea. And they don’t seem to care. They clearly have never been inquisitive or asked their family members about it.

This shows, again, the reality of another cliché: that America is a “melting pot” of a diversity peoples that over several generations become something different from their ancestors’ national origins: they are Americans.

Intermarriage between the children and grandchildren of those waves of immigrants leaves behind the national, ethnic and religious roots of the original “new arrivals” and puts in its place the mix of many into one. Even the racial divides of the past that limited such mixing have been falling by the wayside over the decades until it has become a political controversy about which box to check on a government census form when its asks the respondent their “race.”

Freedom to Move in the Classical Liberal Age

How did many of our ancestors successfully make it to America, given the types of legal barriers – in the form of passports and visas – to people’s global movements that we take for granted today? Well, through most of the period between 1840 and 1914, there were no such legal prohibitions or restraints.

Following the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century, as the new, emerging spirit of classical liberalism began to take hold over the laws and policies of European governments, passport requirements were abolished. By the middle of the nineteenth century the “freedom to move” was considered an inseparable complement to individual liberty and free trade.

Historian R. R. Palmer explained in his History of the Modern World:

Perhaps most basic in the whole European exodus was the underlying [classical] liberalism of the age. Never before (nor since) had people been legally so free to move. Old laws requiring skilled workmen to stay in their own countries were repealed, as in England in 1824. The old semi-communal agricultural villages, with collective rights and obligations, holding the individual to his native group, fell into disuse except in Russia . . .

Governments permitted their subjects to emigrate, to take with them their savings of shillings, marks, kroner, or lire, and to change nationality by becoming naturalized in their new homes.

The rise of individual liberty in Europe, as well as the hope of enjoying it in America, made possible the great emigration. For so huge a mass movement the most remarkable fact is that it took place by individual initiative and individual expense.

Work Ethic and Freedom as the Paths to the New Life

This was how my grandparents on both sides of my family made it to America. During that first decade of the twentieth century, my father’s parents came as small children from Germany and Ireland. Life was hard, but my grandfather worked hard and with an attitude of “German discipline,” started a business and ended up owning apartment buildings in Chicago (and his brother participated in one of the construction companies that built the Golden Gate Bridge).

My mother’s parents were Russian and Lithuanian Jews whose families came to America following the Pogroms in Russia in 1905. They, too, arrived in New York as small children. My mother’s father wanted to be a doctor, but informal anti-Jewish quotas to many medical schools in 1920s, made it impossible to fulfill that dream. So, instead, he went to pharmacy school, earned his degree and owned a drug store in Brooklyn, New York. (He lost it during the Great Depression because too many of his neighborhood customers to whom he extended credit were not able to pay what they owed due to the hard times.)

The way to success for these waves of immigrants was hard work, determination, and not allowing the ethnic or religious stupidities of others prevent them from going as far as they could, and hopefully making the start that would at least lead to a better life for your children.

The path to such success was education. When I was a small boy, my grandmother on my mother’s side drilled into me: “Get an education. Become a professional man. Then you have a skill and maybe you’re too valuable for the Gentiles to kill.”

My grandmother was not a backward or illiterate woman. As a young girl she had studied for the opera (she even auditioned before Florenz Ziegfeld for a role in the “Ziegfeld Follies”), loved classical music, memorized many of the famous and classic poets, and was widely read in literature.

But the memories of the Cossacks coming into her village in the Ukraine, and burning homes and killing people merely because they were Jews had left its mark. You needed to take your own life into your own hands and make a secure place in a freer country than the one she had left as that small child.

And she constantly repeated one phrase to me: “The world does not owe you a living.” And this from a woman who voted socialist or liberal Democrat, and cried when FDR died! The spirit of American individualism had become an inseparable part of even my “socialist”-leaning grandmother.

The Return of Migration Barriers Before and After the Great War

This classical liberal world of freedom of movement began to change even before the start of the First World War in 1914. For America the change began in the 1880s with restrictions on Chinese entering the United States. Labor union leaders like Samuel Gompers may have denounced the arrival of the Chinese because they supposedly were “ruining” young white men and women through the enticement of opium dens. But, in fact, behind it was the argument that the “yellow hordes” threatened white men’s jobs by being willing to work longer hours for less pay.

With the coming of the First World War, belligerent nations reintroduced restrictions on people entering or leaving their countries without government approval through the reintroduction of the officially issued “passport” and visa system.

And, then, following the war, in the early 1920s, the United States imposed stringent immigration barriers and quotas. Ethnic fears of too many inferior and less educated central and eastern Europeans entering the country, plus the growing pressure of labor unions to limit competition threatening their workplace privileged members lowered the curtain on America’s epoch of generally free migration.

The implicit premise reintroduced was the presumption that you were not a free person at liberty to live, work and travel where and when you chose, as long as you were peaceful and respectful of the rights of others.

Migration Barriers Once More Make You the Property of the State

No, you were once again the property of the state, stamped and controlled through the passport and visa systems. You may leave or enter the jurisdiction of a nation-state only at the pleasure and permission of the political authority with power over that country.

The famous German free market economist, Wilhelm Röpke, once pointed out one of the consequences of such policies in an essay on “Barriers to Migration” (1951):

There is no doubt that the closing of the gates of immigration . . . is a part of the larger tendency of our time towards growing nationalization and collectivization of political, cultural, economic and social life . . .

Modern nationalism and collectivism have, by the restriction of migration, perhaps come closest to the ‘servile state’ . . . Man can hardly be reduced more to a mere wheel in the clockwork of the national collectivist state than by being deprived of his freedom of movement . . . Feeling that he belongs now to his nation, body and soul, he will more easily subdued to the obedient state serf which nationalist and collectivist governments demand.

But what about the “economic” objections to more open borders? What about jobs, wages, and taxpayers’ money? And what about the dilution of American culture and politics by the arrival of large numbers of foreign “aliens”?

We will discuss these issues in part II of this article next week.